The Herebefore is the result of three years’ work thinking and researching about the way women look back to a female (probably literary) forebear. It arose from an unpublished set of sonnets. I often rework and combine material because I find that separate poems deal with an ongoing exploration of a theme and so are connected and sometimes are helped by being fully meshed. I usually try in my poems to float surrealist moments across a firm ground of observed reality. That’s because I want to reflect my daily experience of confusion without losing the reader completely.
The grandmother sings to the marvellous stove
and the child draws another inscrutable house.
It’s indefensible, falling in love with the dead
but every so often a young woman, hungry
and broke, brakes a borrowed car, leans forward,
listens to the bard in the marketplace
and sees the black and white of what hasn’t happened
to her yet: a grey basket of bread
turning brown. Similarly, an old woman
in black among men wearing white, apron and shirt,
watches to see their future in what’s been stopped.
Of the unrealised celebrities on the cobbles,
one is lulled by the absence of home into speaking
to me: Stare into my memory. Sleep being sideways,
we sidle into clay, set and stamped down
by poets, ice shaving soft hairs from our skin.
The newly dead can hear for half an hour;
what can the old, dead for a century, hear?
Who she is, a granddaughter knows, myself:
unexpected as a voile caul of rain
on the oak or the minute pools that hang in bracken
to look through. Sun, you’re not the only thing
that thinks it’s the centre, raced round by worlds.
My herebefore, I‘m no less your granddaughter
than one who would stay down a lane narrow enough
to need indents to let another pass,
who would have liked you to wait and see if the work
of eternity rolled up. But you ran off
where pink blackberry flowers net dark-leaved
old nettles and humble the water lilies.
In no-man’s land meet me, set a time:
the lattermath of war. There I rock on the steel,
slit to ribbons above powered pleats of water
falling weeded from the mirage of a still pool
to its spun slip of lace torn off by black ground.
Two bridges cross the same moat, allowing travellers
to stay separate. A heron looks up: someone
has ground a stone against wet grass. Then he ducks
again and his neck coils into black and white
before straightening, rising slowly, the long
bottle-stopper beak pointing west
as the lost woman arrives, her lover lifting
an empty crash of raw silk, a gorgeous
light mass but she is aged by the sun
far into rut and root. No one would know her.
None of us know her logic of flight
to that old village function in a long dress,
children in imitation paging behind her,
a train of family holding the fabric of future
carefully out of the mud. Wedding in memoriam.
She ran over fields, jumping stiles, into woods,
disappearing, a rabbit, flapping her handmade jacket
pockets. Coming back isn’t what the dead do.
You lied when you said you were always home for tea.
Stay still, lean on your hand-cut stick, thorn
or new ash picked from a growing hedge or from wild
seeded trees, young, straight, unbarked
except for thin grey skin. Trees throw a thousand
buds out of fingertips that point to our ancient
cutting, thronged with stranded sticks of sapling.
The thinnest trees have tried to seed, grown
a bit, been defeated. The gullies, the pores in the grass
filled with dead plants – it’s how we breath.
Mind is here, thinking through its litter.
The bike man, mending her Princess Sovereign,
lugged and brazed, with gold-lined mudguards,
ding dong bell, tyre-driven dynamo headlamp,
skirt guards and wicker basket, says: ‘Every cell
has been replaced in my shop. None of it is truly
her machine.’ I drive to Hob’s Moat
where there are no weathercocks, buy red silk
with blue stripes, anything rather than walk
the fields in their rotational rest. She waits,
her shoes battered as oak bark. Rather than find
no thorn and nothing branched,
tethered, only the suicide-flower, ragwort
winched by a chlorophyll cord. We are braked
not scotched. ‘Has she dropped off the earth?’
My grandfather sent a card explaining. So why
do I find her watching an arts festival
in the square when a future for my crossroad
and estate is all I am looking for?
If I’ve misrepresented her, a grandmother
painted beside a candle who claims gas light,
it’s because rain diffuses our images.
She would have been in her element, arc-lit
in gold water, being filmed on stage
reading poems about sun, flanked by flowers,
her face a gleam of all her profiles projected
at once. We would watch her cross the wall
with her words, the woman below copying
the woman above, an image of synchronicity,
as tightly turned as her every stall at my desk.
No skull but a new-coined queen.